Gendered suicide: the person

Several sociological and historical studies suggest that suicide is and has been a gendered phenomenon. In history, as far as completed suicides are concerned, men have committed suicide more often[1], or: their deaths have been classified as suicide more frequently. Research on suicide in early modern Sweden, Scotland, England, and Germany support this view: in these cultural contexts also, men appear have committed more suicides that women. (Kushner 1985, 543–546; Lind 1999, 190–193; Maris et al. 2000, 148; Miettinen 2015, 373–375, 385.) In my own research I am especially interested in the medieval context: according to sources scrutinized by Alexander Murray (1998, 379–386), the ratio of medieval suicide was around two to three males to one female.

Why would men have committed more suicides than women? Various explanations have been offered. For instance, it has been suggested that men in general engage in violent behavior more than women (women appear to have been underrepresented in the other convicted violence crimes as well). On the other hand, the methods men have employed in committing suicide may have been more violent (or even: more effective) than those of the women. It has also been suggested that in some contexts the difference between male and female suicide rates depended on different motives. In addition, familial discipline, which in medieval and early modern context could also involve violence, was often considered a man’s task in the household and part of the natural order – in other words, male violence was considered more acceptable than female aggression (bearing in mind that suicide was considered an act of violence against the self). Accordingly, the role of women was likely to be socially more restricted, or “harmonized” than men’s who were allowed less social conformity. (Kushner 1985, 540–542, 546–551; Lind 1999, 193–194; Maris et al. 2000, 145–146, 152, 156; Hacking 2008, 7–8; Butler 2006, 143–144; Miettinen 2015, 375.)

(At this phase it should be borne in mind that suicide was not only considered a grave sin, but also a legal felony in many parts of medieval and early modern Europe. The felony could be punished by confiscation of chattels and burial outside churchyard. In England, for instance, according to Groot (2000), the property of the suicide was not forfeit in Eyre rolls that date from 1175–1221; after that suicide started to be categorized as felony, but the idea and practice of seeing suicide as felony became established in the 1230s. In Scandinavia, confiscation of property as a punishment for suicide was established e.g. in Iceland in the thirteenth century, but in Sweden, for instance, the posthumous punishment of the suicide involved only the place and manner of burial. Accordingly suicides would not receive a Christian burial in the churchyard.)

It has also been suggested that, for instance in the medieval context, since suicide was a taboo female suicides were considered something truly abhorrent and too horrific to think about, and for this reason the sentences of female suicides were likely to be modified, which could then result in fewer female suicides in legal records. Some researchers suggest that women could be protected and consequently, cases of female suicides were handled privately – however, some historians disagree with this view. Or, women were not expected to be capable of committing any violent crimes, such as homicide or suicide. In addition, in medieval English legal records and in the formulae used in them (studied by Alexander Murray), for instance, the judges appear to have been harder on men than on women in their verdicts. Men were often represented as being clearly aware of what they were doing and found guilty of felony. In the case of women it could be indicated that the act was committed e.g. under some external pressure. Such cases could then result in exculpation, i.e. the death was categorized e.g. as misadventure. Therefore, no posthumous punishment, confiscation of property, or shame resulted from the act – the women whose deaths were handled in this way would still receive a Christian burial and their chattels were not confiscated. (Murray 1998, 383–385; see also Lind 1999, 193–194, 197–201; Butler 2006, 144–145; Miettinen 2015, 375–377.)

However, Alexander Murray whose study (1998, 2000) is based on a variety of sources, ranging from medieval English, German and French legal records to chronicles, abbey registers and religious literature has also pointed out that attention should not be payed merely to completed, i.e. “full” suicides. If suicide threats and attempts are included in the study of suicide in hagiographical sources, such as miracula and vitae (excluding exempla), the ratio of male suicide to female suicide becomes inverted (according to the sources used by Murray: 1,6 female: 1 male). (Murray 1998, 380–383.) This ratio is more or less consonant with modern findings, which suggest that women engage more often in suicidal behavior than men, and that suicide attempts and unsuccessful suicides are more common among women than among men. Still, men are more likely to die as a result of their suicidal act than women.  Accordingly, men appear to engage in more fatal suicidal behavior.  (Murray 1998, 380–383; see also Kushner 1985, 543–546; Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998, and the studies mentioned in Murray 1998, 383n; Lind 1999, 197–198; Maris et al. 2000, 150–151.)

Murray has also pointed out that legal sources may be problematic especially in the study of medieval suicide in that suicide as an illegal act, which was punishable by confiscation of property, could make officials selective; it must have been found tempting to record suicides committed by important and wealthy males in particular. Cases that were found unimportant and those suicides who possessed no wealth could perhaps be more easily ignored. Women would often be included in the latter category. (Murray 1998, 380, 390; see also Lind 1999, 194 (on early modern Germany); Groot 2000, 9.)

Roger D. Groot has also pointed out in his study of medieval Eyre rolls (from 1194–1232) and Pipe Rolls (for the reigns of Henry II, Richard I and John) that women’s cause of death in general was not always investigated in detail. For instance, in early thirteenth-century Bedford, England, murder fine did not necessarily apply to women. Therefore, if a woman had been killed, her death would have been adjudged neither murder nor misadventure. In addition, an accidental death of a female could be adjudged misfortune, a category which was, however, clearly distinguished from suicide. Or, a woman’s accidental death was left without judgment altogether. It could be merely stated that no one was suspect. Although the sources studied by Groot at first glance seem to imply that women were treated differently from men in suicide cases, Groot concludes that such was probably not the case. (Groot 2000, 8–9, 11–12.)

However, early modern Scandinavian sources offer another view of the possible selectiveness of the jurors. As Riikka Miettinen has shown, in early modern Sweden where suicide was not punished by confiscation of property but by exclusion from the churchyard, suspected suicides were not always treated equally. Those of the suicide who had been well liked and respected in life or towards whom people felt sympathy, could in certain occasions avoid ending up in secular court or escape a sentence – and therefore, they could still receive a Christian burial. Or, they could be deemed insane (which resulted in a milder punishment, i.e. silent burial aside the churchyard, which indicated burial without ceremonies), whereas unpopular individuals and people who lacked social ties were likely to be judged more rigorously. Accordingly, gender alone did not influence the verdict. The social status of the person was apparently a more important factor. However, it appears that women were diagnosed insane more often than men who were more frequently expected to have committed suicide for rational causes. (Miettinen 2015, 85–86, 367–452.)

To conclude, although historical sources have to be used cautiously and statistics based on their information are not commensurable with modern statistics, they offer some guidelines for the study of suicide and its gendered aspects in medieval Scandinavia. Earlier research also suggests that suicide methods and motives can likewise be gendered. I will continue to discuss the gender issue regarding these points – methods and motives – in my following posts.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Gendered suicide: the person.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 4 August, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/08/04/gendered-suicide-the-person/   >

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Works cited

Butler, Sara M. 2006. Women, Suicide, and the Jury in Later Medieval England. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 32 (2006) 1: 141–166.

Canetto, Silvia Sara. 1997. Meaning s of Gender and Suicidal Behavior during Adolescence. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 27 (1997) 4: 339–351.

Canetto, Silvia Sara & Isaac Sakinofsky. 1998. The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 28 (1998) 1: 1–23.

Groot, Roger D. 2000. When Suicide Became Felony. The Journal of Legal History 21 (2000)1: 1–20.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Kushner, Howard I. 1985. Women and Suicide in Historical Perspective. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture & Society 10 (1985) 3: 537–552.

Lind, Vera. 1999. Selbstmord in der Frühen Neuzeit: Diskurs, Lebenswelt und kulturellerWandel am Beispiel der Herzogtümer Schleswig und Holstein. Veröffentlichungen des Max-Planck-Instituts für Geschichte 146. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Maris, Ronald W., Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman. 2000. Suicide, Gender, and Sexuality. In Ronald W. Maris, Alan L. Berman & Morton M. Silverman (eds.), Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology. New York: The Guilford Press, 145–169.

Miettinen, Riikka. 2015. Suicide in Seventeenth-Century Sweden: The Crime and Legal Praxis in the Lower Courts. University of Tampere, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities.

Murray, Alexander. 1998. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

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[1] Naturally, some cultural differences do occur.

Theories of suicide: Durkheim

Theories of suicide attempt to explain why some people become suicidal and engage in suicidal behavior. The theories may also be of help in clinical work in that they may help to identify those individuals who may be at risk. My study concentrates on medieval, twelfth to fourteenth-century Scandinavia (Iceland in particular), where people were likely to have their own ideas of what made people suicidal and caused them to commit suicide, although no written theories existed, and no one had presumably ever even made an attempt to create one. These theories were “lived” in that people could, for instance, think and present their views of the causes of a certain suicide among friends, neighbors and relatives, or in legal and religious contexts when the cause of death was inquired, to decide whether the corpse could be buried in the churchyard or not, and whether the property of the deceased should be confiscated or not (in Iceland, the Jónsbók law from the year 1281 stated that suicide was a crime). There may have been both similarities and differences between the northern (i.e. Scandinavian) and southern (i.e. European) views of suicide and its causes, although by then Scandinavians too had already become Christians (Conversion started to take place gradually in Scandinavia from the late 10th century onwards, e.g. in Iceland in 1000). Examining the medieval Icelandic  “vernacular theory of suicide” is part of my project.

Modern theories of suicide cannot be used to explain the causes of suicide in medieval context, but knowing about these theories not only gives food for thought, but may turn out to be fruitful, as the information may assist in widening the scope and in defining what to look for in the sources. Some of the theories have also been widely criticized, but this criticism may likewise offer some interesting ideas concerning the study at hand. Today, there are many theories of suicide, e.g. the interpersonal theory, the network theory, fluid vulnerability model, and so on. As far as the modern scientific theories of suicide are concerned, the story often begins with Émile Durkheim and his division of suicides in four different types, egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic suicide, presented in his book Le Suicide, published originally in 1897.

I will begin with É. Durkheim, who defined his four types of suicide as follows: According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide was linked with feelings of uselessness, helplessness, and feelings of being unattached and of not belonging, and desperation, as a consequence of individual’s social disintegration. According to Durkheim, egoistic suicide was typical for groups with low social integration, and he suggested there was a difference between suicide rates of the Protestants and the Catholics, of whom the Protestants were in his view more socially disintegrated and individualistic, whereas the degree of social cohesion among the Catholic people was higher. As a consequence, their social capital protected them from committing suicide, whereas the Protestants had to rely on themselves and on their own conscience. (See Durkheim 1897, book II, chs 2–3)

Several later studies have found support for Durkheim’s claim, i.e. they likewise argue that Protestants have a higher tendency to commit suicide than the Catholics, although strong religious commitment may protect the Protestants as well. (See e.g. Torgler & Schaltegger 2014; in other studies, it has also been shown that religiosity in general contributes to life satisfaction. See e.g. Lim & Putnam 2010.) However, Durkheim’s sources were likely to have been biased, and some later scholars have not been able to escape the problems of statistical bias completely, either. (See e.g. Kushner & Sterk 2005; for criticism, see Poppel & Day 1996).

Frans van Poppel and Lincoln H. Day, for instance, have pointed out, based on their sources that consist of data from the Netherlands ca. 1905–1910, i.e. sources that were nearly contemporary to the sources used by Durkheim, that the suicide rates of the Protestants and the Catholics were based on different kind of definitions (concerning the cause of death) and recording practices. Although suicides were reported to occur more often among the Protestants, the rates of “sudden death” and deaths from “unknown and unspecified causes” were half as high and almost twice as high respectively among the Catholics as the Protestants, for both males and females. Accordingly, what would have been categorized as a suicide among the Protestants, was often defined as a sudden death or death from some unknown or unspecified cause among the Catholics. Naturally, comparison between the rates of the two groups based on such source material would be biased. (Poppel & Day 1996)

Moreover, as a sociologist, Durkheim was concerned about the modern urban life and how it, in his view, weakened familial bonds and caused alienation, and affected the human health, including the individual’s tendency to commit suicide. His concern made him emphasize the collective and the social and exclude many other significant factors. (Kushner & Sterk 2005)

At the other end of the continuum of social integration was, according to Durkheim, altruistic suicide, which could result from excessive social integration. It was characterized by diminished or under-developed sense of individuality, which enhanced the tendency to commit to larger goals and self-sacrifice for the interests of one’s own group. Durkheim included in the category of altruistic suicide e.g. the old and the ill whose obligation it was in some cultures to commit suicide, since otherwise they would lose the respect of others, or widows who killed themselves after the death of their spouse. (See Durkheim 1897, Book II, ch 4.) (However, it should be noted that Durkheim appears to be completely ignorant of the cultural and historical context of the phenomena he lists among the altruistic suicide, as many of them have been observed in non-western societies.)

Durkheim also counted military suicide in altruistic suicide, although his sources did not include information about military suicides that could be defined as self-sacrifice – sacrificing one’s life in battle was never reported as suicide in official records. Later it has been pointed out that the military suicide Durkheim was examining could, in fact, be termed, in Durkheim’s own terms, as fatalistic suicide, since the life of the nineteenth-century soldiers was likely to have been characterized with high moral regulation, very strong social integration and oppressive control. However, categorizing military suicide as fatalistic would have challenged Durkheim’s own view of modernity, i.e. that low social integration and urban life were among the most important factors that jeopardized the human health. (Kushner & Sterk 2005.)

However, Durkheim considered fatalistic suicide less relevant for his own research. According to him, the term had only historical significance in that fatalistic suicides would have been committed e.g. by slaves, that is by people under excessive physical and moral tyranny. Durkheim only mentions the term in a footnote, and defines it as the opposite of anomic suicide. (Durkheim 1897, Book II, p. 124, footnote 4.)

In Durkheim’s thought, anomic suicide was – as the opposite of fatalistic suicide – connected with low moral regulation as well as sudden and drastic social and economic changes and upheavals, which could lead to social and moral disorder. Durkheim distinguished between what he identified as economic anomy – such as economic crises and booms or unemployment – and domestic anomy, exemplified e.g. by widowhood and divorce. (Durkheim 1897, Book II, ch 5.)

In his theory of suicide, Durkheim was interested in collective social forces rather than in psychological factors. He considered suicide a social fact that could be explained by other social facts, not by individual stories. Social and economic factors as well as the degree of moral regulation and social integration in a particular society are an important part of the cultural and historical context. However, it is probable that people in the past were also occasionally interested in (what we call) psychological factors: what had motivated the suicide of a certain individual. In the followings posts, I will list and elaborate further some psychological theories of suicide as well.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Theories of suicide: Durkheim.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 12 July, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/  >

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Works cited

Durkheim, Émile. 1897. Le suicide. Étude de sociologie. Paris: Les Presses universitaires de France. Available electronically at: http://classiques.uqac.ca/classiques/Durkheim_emile/suicide/suicide.html

Kushner,  Howard I. & Claire E. Sterk. 2005. The Limits of Social Capital: Durkheim, Suicide, and Social CohesionAmerican Journal of Public Health 95 (2005) 7: 1139–1143. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2004.053314

Lim, Chaeyoon & Robert D. Putnam. 2010. Religion, Social Networks and Life Satisfaction. American Sociological Review 75 (2010) 6: 914–933.

Poppel, Frans van & Lincoln H. Day. 1996. A Test of Durkheim’s Theory of Suicide: Without Committing the “Ecological Fallacy”. American Sociological Review 61 (1996) 3: 500–507.

Torgler, Benno & Christoph Schaltegger. 2014. Suicide and Religion: New Evidence on the Differences between Protestantism and Catholicism. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53 (2014) 2: 316–340.

Research notes: suicide and empathy in medieval Iceland

The annual conference of the International Society for Cultural History (ISCH) was held this year in Umeå, Sweden (26–29 June, 2017). The general theme of the year was “Senses, Emotions and the Affective Turn – Recent Perspectives and New Challenges in Cultural History”. In the conference, I presented a paper on suicide and empathy in medieval, ca. 13th and 14th-century Iceland. Some of the points of my paper are summarized below.

By the thirteenth century, Icelanders had been at least nominally Christian for about two hundred years (the official Conversion took place around year 1000). It is probable that by then, they also had some idea of the Christian view of suicide. It would have been known at least by the clerical people that Christian theologians regarded suicide as a morally reprehensible deed (see e.g. Murray 1998; Murray 2000). From the early twelfth century onwards, the Icelandic Church law stated that those who committed suicide should not be buried in the churchyard, unless they expressed in some way that they repented their deed. In 1262 Icelanders submitted to the Norwegian king, and after that, the Norwegian king introduced the Icelanders a new law code in 1280, known as Jónsbók. In this new law, suicide was explicitly criminalized for the first time in Iceland. Confiscation of property was declared as punishment.

Therefore, medieval Icelanders were aware that in Christian, and later also in legal context, suicide was considered a morally culpable deed. Laws may have affected their views of, norms concerning and attitudes towards suicide. These norms, views and attitudes may also have influenced their tendency to feel empathy for the suicide. However, as I argued in my paper, people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide may also have depended on their views of what emotions, such as empathy, are and how they operate, in other words on their theory of emotion. (For theories of emotion, see Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)

“Empathy” is a fairly new term even in the English language (see e.g. Verducci 2000 and “empathy” in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy), and as far as medieval Iceland was concerned, there was no word for the concept. However, the ability to understand and appreciate another person’s experience and feelings was expressed, for instance, with words for sympathy and compassion (e.g. íhugi, várkunn, samharman, meðaumkan, sampíning, brjóstbragð), which implied that the person shared, minded and was conscious of the other one’s feelings and experiences and could find their actions excusable, and was emotionally moved by the other one’s pain and sorrow, or could feel pity for them.

What is interesting is that words that explicitly indicate shared or same sorrow and pain, or being moved by the other one’s suffering, were used – according to the recordings of the Dictionary of Old Norse Prose/ Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog, which records the vocabulary of Old Norse-Icelandic prose writings, and the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Gudbrand Vigfusson – only in sources that are of religious nature and of clerical origin.

In medieval Christianity, compassio had positive connotations. It had spiritual meanings and was linked to imitatio Christi, imitation of Christ, and accordingly, was a way to Christian salvation. (See e.g. Moyn 2006, 399.) The empathy-related words in Old Icelandic sources that can be linked with clerical origin presumably had similar positive connotations. The representation of compassio in these Old Icelandic texts may also have been linked to didactic purposes: they taught and encouraged behavior that was thought to be proper for a good Christian.

However, that’s not the whole story. Medieval Icelanders did not consider all emotions positive, and some of their views were not immediately influenced by Christian and European influences. Grief and sorrow, for instance, were considered detrimental to one’s health. Excessive grief could lead to death. Grief and sorrow could also make an individual vulnerable to the influences of the supernatural forces and agents, which could then harm the individual in many ways (more on this porous body schema, see Kanerva 2013; Kanerva 2014; Kanerva 2015; on sorrow and vulnerability to the influence of the demons and evils spirits in the European context, see also Caciola 2000, 77–78 and 80).

This medieval Icelandic understanding of emotions was part of the context where empathy-related emotions such as compassion and sympathy would have been felt. Although compassion was apparently considered a positive emotion in clerical contexts, in lay view compassion could be regarded as potentially harmful since it could involve experiencing the same sorrow that was felt by the one who was pitied, as the words for compassion and sympathy imply (e.g. samharman, which literally meant “same/shared sorrow”). Feeling the same sorrow and sharing the grief with the individual for whom compassion was felt, could make the empathetic person more vulnerable to the influence of the supernatural forces. Accordingly, feeling empathy was not construed as good for one’s own well-being in all contexts. Such a view may also have influenced people’s tendency to feel empathy towards suicide.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Suicide and Empathy in Medieval Iceland.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 30 June, 2016. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/06/30/suicide-and-empathy-in-medieval-iceland/  >

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Works cited

Caciola, Nancy. 2000. Spirits Seeking Bodies: Death, Possession and Communal Memory in the Middle Ages. In The Place of the Dead. Death and Remembrance in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, ed. Bruce Gordon and Peter Marshall. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 66–86.

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1957. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: A Peer-Reviewed Academic Resource.  http://www.iep.utm.edu/home/about/

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2013. “Eigi er sá heill, er í augun verkir.“ Eye Pain in Thirteenth and Fourteenth-Century Íslendingasögur. ARV – Nordic Yearbook of Folklore 69 (2013), 7–35.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2014. Disturbances of the Mind and Body: Effects of the Living Dead in Medieval Iceland. In Mental (Dis)Order in Later Medieval Europe, ed. Sari Katajala-Peltomaa and Susanna Niiranen. Later Medieval Europe, 12. Leiden: Brill, 219–242.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Porous Bodies, Porous Minds. Emotions and the Supernatural in the Íslendingasögur (ca. 1200–1400). Turku: University of Turku.

Moyn, Samuel. 2006. Empathy in History, Empathizing with Humanity. History and Theory 45 (2006) 3, 397–415.

Murray, Alexander. 1998. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1: The Violent against Themselves. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Murray, Alexander. 2000. Suicide in the Middle Ages. Vol. 2: The Curse on Self-Murder. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog. http://onp.ku.dk/

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/empathy/

Verducci, Susan. 2000. A Conceptual History of Empathy and a Question it Raises for Moral Education. Educational Theory 50 (2000), 63–80.

Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia

Lately I have been thinking about the possible connection between martyrdom and suicide. Since martyrs are “bearing witness”, as the original meaning of the Greek word μάρτυς implies, we may question whether there is any link between the two phenomena, martyrdom and suicide. However, to the question whether the manner of death may – in some contexts at least – be voluntary, both martyrdom and suicide could answer: ‘yes’.

In early Christianity, martyrdom was often characterized with some passivity: ascetic martyrs died of self-starvation, and those who refused to renounce their religion in the early days of Christianity could suffer a horrible punishment, damnatio ad bestias, as they were killed by wild animals. Many of these martyrs became saints, and the tradition of martyrdom and holy people spread along with the Christian religion. (On saints and sainthood in medieval Europe and Scandinavia, see DuBois 2008.)

In Scandinavia, native martyrs who became saints were “born” after Conversion as well. However, these martyred saints were not persecuted because of their religion and thrown to wild beasts, and did not lose their lives because of self-starvation.

Haki Antonsson, who in his study has defined martyrdom “as the perceived attainment of sanctity through the suffering of violent death” (2004, 71), has pointed out that in medieval Scandinavia, martyrs who were of royal origin were born in a fairly prompt manner soon after the Conversion. In Western Scandinavia, the official Conversion took place around year 1000, although the process of Christianization has been estimated to have taken place between the eighth and twelfth centuries, as a consequence of various missionary enterprises. In practice, the new faith usually spread from secular rulers and the members of the elite to the lower classes of the society. (On Christianization of Scandinavia, see e.g. Sanmark 2004).

According to Haki Antonsson, royal saints and princely martyrs were very common in medieval Scandinavia; in fact, martyrdom – as defined by Haki Antonsson, i.e. as a violent death – appears to have been the only way of becoming a saint until the end of the twelfth century.[1] (Haki Antonsson 2004, 71–75; for a list of saints of Scandinavian origin, see also DuBois 2008, 15–19.) Violent death in troops that carried the Cross and fought infidels or preached the new faith appears to have been central to sainthood in Christianity in general at this phase (see also below). Many of the men of the Church who became saints had died while on a missionary expedition. Such a violent death was for many something to go for, a fulfillment of missionary’s wishes. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 75–76, 78.)

Scandinavian kings and princes were secular figures, and the consequences of their martyrdom were not merely divine. For secular rulers and their families martyrdom and sainthood were an important opportunity to stabilize their power and to show that their power originated from God. From the perspective of the Church, this practice was acceptable and approved since the secular rulers eventually assisted the Church in the strengthening of its position and authority. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 74–75, 77)

According Haki Antonsson, the popularity of the princely martyrs in Scandinavia may be linked to Anglo-Saxon influence, but as far as the medieval Scandinavian thoughts of martyrdom are concerned, the role of European chivalric ideas should not be underestimated either. In Europe, knights became the warriors of Christ. In addition, the Church encouraged the Scandinavian rulers to defend the Church and fight its enemies – be it against the infidels, the excommunicated, or peace-breakers, for instance. They promised that the victims of this war that was considered justified could expect to receive a heavenly reward. In 853 Leo IV (790–855) had clearly associated death in battle against the infidels with heavenly reward, which in practice started to indicate afterlife in paradise – although the papal authorities – Leo IX (pope 1048–1054), Gregory VII (1073–1085) and Urban II (1088–1099) rather spoke of spiritual benefits, such as the absolution of sins (which was linked to the developing system of indulgence), and saw participation in the crusades as an act of penance. Those who died would be offered a martyr status. After the First Crusade (1096–1099) called by Pope Urban II, the distinction between warriors who fought the pagans and fell and martyred saints became more blurred and remained so throughout the Middle Ages. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 79–82, 85; Middleton 2014, 120)

Similar ideas were enhanced also by Scandinavian clerics. As the power of the monarchs in Europe increased from the thirteenth century onwards, also those who fought for secular rulers could become martyrs. In Norway, the archbishop of Nidaros, Eysteinn Erlendsson (d. 1188), enhanced the view that dying for the king also merited a heavenly reward and that all the sins of all those who fell in battle were washed away sooner than their blood on the ground would turn cold, and accordingly, no sins needed to be confessed. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 83 – 84; according to Haki Antonsson 2004, 87, Norway was presumably the first realm where an ecclesiastical authority gave such a promise.)

We have no reason to believe that Icelanders would not have been familiar with the Christian ideas of martyrdom, or with Eysteinn Erlendsson’s application of them as the Icelandic bishops of Hólar and Skálholt were suffragans of the archdiocese of Nidaros. The idea that those who ”took up the cross” and fell would immediately enter Heaven is also clearly expressed, for instance, in the thirteenth-century Knýtlinga saga, which recites the history of the Danish kings from Canute the Saint (1042–1086, was killed by rebels) to Knut Valdimarson who reigned 1182–1202, and was presumably written by an Icelander, Óláfr hvítaskáld Þórðarson (ca. 1210–1259), the brother of another famous thirteenth-century saga writer Sturla Þórðarson (1214–1284) and the nephew of Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241), a famous Icelandic politician, poet and historian. The saga refers to the speech of Pope Eugene III, the proclaimer of the Second Crusade (1147–1149), and links it to the fall of Jerusalem. The papal bull in question, Quantum praedecessores, was issued in 1145 and 1146, but did not actually concern Jerusalem but Edessa. (Haki Antonsson 2004, 87–88; on Knýtlinga saga and Óláfr Þórðarson, see Simek & Hermann Pálsson 2007, 229–230, 289.) Despite the misunderstanding, the reference to crusades and heavenly reward in the saga does imply that the medieval crusade mentality, ideas of Christian martyrdom and salvation through death in battles against the heathen had been, as Haki Antonsson’s study also shows, well adopted in thirteenth-century Scandinavia.

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Regarding my study of the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia, among the most interesting points in medieval Scandinavian (Christian) martyrdom at this point is that a highly respected posthumous status, perhaps even sainthood, and long-lasting fame was achieved by death in battles where the Christian faith, and later also Christian kings, were defended. Violent death as well made many men a martyr (although it is good to remember that the system was not that democratic: you had to be a man of high rank, servants and poor people were less likely to achieve a venerated posthumous status). Sacrificing oneself for the Cross was a means to gain an everlasting fame.

Secondly, the points made above raise new questions. If the violent death of a martyr did offer a chance to enhance one’s own reputation and prominence – to show others what one was made of – and increased the power of the family, would the ideas of martyrdom and their internalization have increased the occurrences of voluntary death? From psychoanalytically oriented perspective, the connection between the mentality associated with martyrdom and destructive death drive, or the desire for nonexistence (on the concepts, see Lowental 1986) raises some questions as well.  The classic in the field of suicidology, Émile Durkheim’s Le Suicide (published originally 1897), has suggested that deliberateness and intentionality are not prerequisites of suicide. Following Durkheim’s definition of suicide, it is not required that a person  (consciously) wants to die.

So, was the kind of military martyrdom described above a type of medieval autodestruction: a death that would be avoidable, such as dying in a car crash because of speeding, but considered in the medieval Scandinavian context a socially acceptable way of causing one’s own death, even if suicide as such was regarded as an unapprovable act? In other words, was it a socially acceptable suicide[2], which gained renown from the Church (and presumably also the Crown) and helped to escape the possible posthumous punishments that could be applied to suicides (e.g. burial outside the churchyard)? (On autodestruction, see Encyclopédie sur la mort; on thoughts of autodestruction by Emmanuel Todd, see also Hacking 2008.) These are some of the question I am working with at the moment.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 15 June, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/06/15/martyrdom-in-medieval-scandinavia/   >

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Works cited

DuBois, Thomas A. 2008. Introduction. Sanctity in the North. Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, ed. Thomas A. DuBois. Toronto Old Norse-Icelandic Series 3. Toronto, Buffalo & London: University of Toronto Press, 3–28.

Durkheim, Émile. 1952. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Encyclopédie sur la mort. [Suicide: Définitions et typologies :] “Autodestruction.” Electronic document, available at http://agora.qc.ca/thematiques/mort/dossiers/autodestruction (last accessed June 15, 2017)

Hacking, Ian. 2008. “The Suicide Weapon.” Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Haki Antonsson. 2004. Some Observations on Martyrdom in Post-Conversion Scandinavia. Saga-Book, 28 (2004), 70–94.

Knýtlinga saga = C. af Petersen & E. Olsen. 1919–1925. Sögur Danakonunga. Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk Litteratur 46. Køpenhavn: Háskóli Íslands. Available at http://www.septentrionalia.net/etexts/danakonunga.pdf

Lowental, U. 1986. Autodestruction and nonexistence: two distinct aspects of the death drive. Psychoanalytic Review 73 (1986)3: 349–360.

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Sanmark, Alexandra 2004. Power and Conversion. A Comparative Study of Christianization in Scandinavia. Occasional Papers in Archaeology  34. Uppsala.

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[1] However, Haki Antonsson has also brought forth that in the earliest sources of the cult of St Óláfr (995–1030), his martyrdom is not emphasized. One of the earliest descriptions of his martyrdom can be found in the writings of Adam of Bremen (11th-cent.), from ca. 1080. His thoughts had likely been inspired by Christian ideas of martyrdom. Haki Antonsson 2004, 72–73.

[2] I will speak more about the autodestruction issue and present some case studies of the subject in my forthcoming book on the history of suicide in medieval Scandinavia.

 

What is martyrdom? (Part 1)

What is martyrdom, and is the concept relevant concerning the subject of my study, suicide in medieval Scandinavia? The question may not sound meaningful at first, but when trying to define each of the concepts, martyrdom and suicide, it becomes clear that the two concepts sometimes coincide. In both cases, an individual may actively – or passively, to follow Émile Durkheim‘s (1858–1917) admittedly sometimes contested theory of suicide – do something that directly or indirectly causes his or her death, and simultaneously, s/he may be aware of the result and certain of it, i.e. that he or she will die. In Durkheim’s theory, for instance, the aspects mentioned above are essential elements in his definition of suicide. Although we would not agree with Durkheim’s theory, we cannot dismiss the similarity between martyrdom and suicide suggested by the definition.

At this point, I will not try to produce an all-encompassing definition of martyrdom, but will consider what the phenomenon is all about and whether the concept has any relevance concerning the study of suicide in general and of the history of medieval suicide in particular. In this post, I will present some preliminary thoughts about martyrdom, bearing in mind that in the future I also need to examine how medieval Scandinavians defined “martyr” and “martyrdom” and whether their definitions followed the ideas known in Christianity (which were not always consistent and dis change over time, see e.g. Middleton 2014 on this), or whether they also show traces of native elements, typical for northern cultures and/or peripheral cultures where the Christian religion was adopted fairly late. And, what is my major concern in this project, is the question of martyrdom and voluntary death – sometimes termed as suicide – and whether medieval Scandinavians would have seen similarities between the two phenomena (and eventually: based on this knowledge, what can we say about medieval Scandinavian attitudes towards suicide).

To begin with, Ian Hacking (2008, 23–24) has emphasized the religious connotations of the word ‘martyr’ and how the martyrs are often (also ritually) commemorated and admired. The actual meaning of the word is “to bear witness”. The idea of witnessing is also expressed in the Old Icelandic word for a ‘martyr’, píningarváttr, which literally meant “witness of torture” (in some texts, also the term Guðsváttr, “God’s witness”, is used. See the words e.g. in The Icelandic-English DictionaryOrdbog over det norrøne prosasprog).

In his study of the concept of martyrdom, Paul Middleton (2014) has emphasized the connection of martyrdom to questions of identity and worldview, be it religious, theological, political, national, for instance. Martyrdom can strengthen both the identity and the worldview of a certain group, and it facilitates making distinction and creating boundaries between different groups. Accordingly, martyrdom is not an objective or neutral concept. (Middleton 2014, 118–119)

Concerning this project, especially the medieval Christian ideas of martyrdom may turn out to be helpful, since influences on the medieval Scandinavian views of Christian martyrdom would likely have been drawn from the European models. In addition, some scholars have suggested that the Christian ideas of martyrdom had Jewish correlates (e.g. in the Books of the Maccabees), but Ancient Greek and Roman views of and tradition concerning martyrs have likely influenced the development of the Christian phenomenon as well. (See Middleton 2014, 120–121; Hacking 2008, 23-24)

I will draw my first example from the early days of Christianity, when martyrdom was linked to some kind of passiveness. Asceticism, which could include self-starvation, was apparently the (permitted) cause of death of some Christian martyrs, and some of the early Christians (along with criminals and slaves) suffered the Roman capital punishment, known as damnatio ad bestias. This form of punishment practically meant that the person who had been condemned was killed by wild animals. In addition to this fairly cruel manner of death, early Christians (who for the Romans were enemies of the state) endured various forms of torture, which they often endured without a blink of an eye, at least according to later testimonies, and calm saintly martyrs who were unaffected by the torments of the flesh became the ideal image of a Christian saint. (See e.g. Cohen 2000; Hacking 2008, 24–25)

Stories of these early Christian martyrs are a good example of how martyrologies can strengthen the identity of a religious group. In these early Christian martyrologies, the confession “I am a Christian” and refusing to renounce their faith, even if under torture, is a typical characteristic associated with the early Christian martyrs. In fact, those who did not confess their faith up until the bitter end but gave it up in the pains of persecution, were in some contexts regarded as heretic. The concept of martyrdom was, however, not unproblematic in early Christianity (as it is not unproblematic today), and the definition of the term turned out to be similarly complex also later in the Middle Ages. (Middleton 2014, 122-123; I will return to this issue in my later posts as I will acquaint myself further with the medieval conceptions of martyrdom.

At this point it is good to note, however, that the possibility that there is a connection between martyrdom and suicide is not approved by everyone. Suzanne Stern-Gillet (1987), for instance, has criticized Durkheim’s definitions of suicide (on his definitions, see also here) for not giving enough attention to motivation and intention. According to her, Durkheim’s concept of suicide does not require that a suicide wants to die or actively tries to find ways to die in all situations. Instead, Durkheim included in suicides also cases where the impending death was accepted, although it was considered an ‘unfortunate consequence’, or inescapable. As a consequence of Durkheim’s definition, she states, anyone who agreed to do things and go to places where death was unavoidable, in whatever circumstances, would have been categorized as suicide. Accordingly, following Durkheim’s definition, martyrdom as well could be defined as suicide. (Stern-Gillet 1987, 160–161, 168)

Stern-Gillet appears to be reluctant to define some self-inflicted deaths as suicide, but her argument highlights the difficulty as well as the importance of inquiring in greater depth what martyrdom is and has been all about, and of investigating the cultural models of martyrdom in medieval Scandinavia, including to what extent medieval Scandinavians would have made a connection between martyrdom and suicide. Obviously martyrdom is not and was not associated with suicide in all contexts, but if it was linked with suicide in some contexts, the possible link merits a thought and may give us valuable information concerning the attitudes towards self-killing.

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 How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “What is martyrdom? (Part 1).” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 31 May 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/31/what-is-martyrdom-part-1/  >

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Works cited

Cleasby, Richard & Gudbrand Vigfusson. 1874. An Icelandic-English dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Cohen, Esther. 2000. The Animated Pain of the Body. American Historical Review 105 (2000)1: 36–68.

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.

Middleton, Paul. 2014. What is martyrdom? Mortality 19 (2014) 2: 117–133.

Ordbog over det norrøne prosasprog. < http://onp.ku.dk/ >

Stern-Gillet, Suzanne. 1987. The Rhetoric of Suicide. Philosophy & Rhetoric 20 (1987) 3: 160–170.

Research notes: suicidality of heroic females

The late thirteenth-century Völsunga saga, which has been categorized as one of the Legendary sagas (fornaldarsögur), tells of a Burgundian princess called Guðrún who attempts suicide, but in the end survives. The story of Guðrún’s miseries starts when her beloved husband Sigurðr is killed by her own brothers. Guðrún is then married against her will to another man called Atli, whom she despises and eventually kills, after Atli has persuaded her brothers to visit him, but arranges an ambush where all the brothers are killed. After these events Guðrún does not want to live anymore, but goes to the shore, takes stones with him and walks into the deep water, intending to take her own life. She does not succeed in her attempt, however, as the waves lift her up and carry her to the castle of king Jónakur, whom she then marries.

In fact, Guðrún’s attempt to take her own life is not the only suicidal episode in Völsunga saga. In addition, it appears to be women in particular who commit suicide in the saga or at least try to do so, as Guðrún does. Another character who dies voluntarily is Signý. She too marries her husband King Siggeir reluctantly, and the husband, who envies Signý’s father Völsungr and her brothers, invites them to his realm and kills them instead of offering them hospitality. Only one of the brothers, Sigmundr, survives. With him Signý is eventually able to avenge the death of his father and brothers. Sigmundr kills King Siggeir together with Sinfjötli, who is the son of the sister and brother, i.e. Signý and Sigmundr. After getting her revenge, Signý does not want to live anymore but says:

I have wrought at all times for the slaying of King Siggeir; and so mightily have I worked to bring about this revenge that on no terms will I live on hereafter; gladly shall I die now with King Siggeir, though against my will I married him.[1]

After her comment, Signý walks into the flames, which are already devouring the corpses of her husband and his men.

Another case in Völsunga saga is Brynhildr who is a (former) valkyrie. She and Sigurðr have been destined to each other, and they have made wows to marry each other and no one else. However, Sigurðr’s eyes are blinded by a magic potion given to him by Guðrún’s mother who wants him to be part of her own family and support her sons and defend their realm. Brynhildr on the other hand is married to Guðrún’s brother Gunnarr. As Brynhildr discovers the betrayal, she urges Gunnarr and his brothers to kill Sigurðr, and they end up doing so. Brynhildr’s sorrow over Sigurðr’s death is even greater than Guðrún’s, and she stabs herself to death to join Sigurðr in the Afterlife.

Similar to Völsunga saga, the heroic lays of Eddic poetry relate stories of the Völsungs and the Burgundians and refer to the suicidal tendencies of their female protagonists. Both the saga and the poetry are part of the so-called Völsung cycle (which also includes the Middle High German epic poem Nibelungenlied). They were both written down in the end of the thirteenth century although the material on which they are based is apparently much older. At first glance, the female tendency to attempt or commit suicide expressed in this Old Norse-Icelandic material is astounding. The men in the stories do not appear to be that eager to end their lives, although surely they are not afraid of facing their destinies. The difference may imply a cultural or authorial attitude: that the women were thought to commit more suicides than the men, or even: that a woman was held as a kind of “prototype” of a self-killer in medieval Icelandic culture.

We should not take it for granted, however, that literature solely reflects the reality. In many cases it may indeed do so, and it is admitted that reality does influence the literature and how things are described in it.[2] But literature also influences the reality; it may affect the ideas, norms and attitudes held by people. Although women would not have been over-represented in the actual cases of suicide, people may have tended to think that young women who were newly wedded but lost their spouse, or who experienced heartache, were more likely to commit suicide than rest of the population. Perhaps their suicide would have been easier to explain as their motivation for the act perhaps appeared others as more explicit. At this point of my research it is still too early to draw conclusions, however, and the possibility of a “statistical error” when studying medieval literature needs to be paid attention to.

Medieval Icelandic material does not offer material for reliable statistics, however, so even in the end of the project it may turn out to be difficult to say which groups of people were more likely to commit suicide.  What is interesting from the general perspective of the theme is that, according to earlier research on gendered suicide in the modern west, for instance, men tend to engage more in fatal suicidal behavior than women, and men may actually commit suicide more often than women, although cultural differences may occur (see e.g. Canetto 1997; Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998; Hacking, 7–8; it should be noted that the articles referred to here are mostly based on studies in English speaking countries, however). Whether medieval Scandinavian culture share characteristics with the modern western culture or not remains still to be examined.

Accordingly, no hasty conclusions should be drawn based only on sources that are part of the Volsung tradition, which contains lots of heroic and even tragic elements. Additionally, it is interesting that the three women – Signý, Brynhildr and Guðrún –apparently have a lot of authority since they can all whet their male relatives to take up revenge: Signý motivates her brother and son to do the avenging, Brynhildr her husband and his brothers, and Guðrún her three sons with King Jónakur whom she urges to avenge their half-sister who has died in the hands of her husband king Jörmunrekr (not to mention that Guðrún boldly fights beside her brothers when they are attacked by the men of King Atli). Accordingly, by medieval Icelanders, they would have been considered hvatar, i.e. “powerful, vigorous and bold”, in a society where people were not categorized strictly by the binary opposition male-female, but between hvatr, which meant ‘powerful, vigorous and bold’ and blauðr, ‘soft, weak and powerless’. The category of blauðr thus included “most women, children, slaves, and old, disabled, or otherwise disenfranchised men”, who were thus considered soft, weak and powerless compared to men (especially aristocratic men and some exceptional women) who were regarded as hvatr. (On this one gender model, see Clover 1993, 380 and passim. See also Kanerva 2015, 67–68, 70)

The three women may have cried their eyes off as they heard of the death of their beloved man, father, brothers, or daughter, but they also take action. As I will bring forth in my forthcoming article, they do not only grieve; they are apparently also motivated by emotions different from grief or despair, which were among the common explanations of suicide in medieval Europe. Having said this, it becomes apparent – again – that the causes of suicide in medieval Iceland may well have differed from those that are commonly held as “usual” causes of suicide in our modern western world, an issue that will be discussed in greater depth in my forthcoming article.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Research notes: suicidality of heroic females.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, May 16, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/05/16/suicidality-of-heroic-females/  >

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Works cited

Canetto, Silvia Sara. 1997. Meaning s of Gender and Suicidal Behavior during Adolescence. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 27 (1997) 4, 339–351.

Canetto, Silvia Sara & Isaac Sakinofsky. 1998. The Gender Paradox in Suicide. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, Vol. 28 (1998) 1, 1–23.

Clover, Carol J. 1993. Regardless of Sex. Men, Women, and Power in Early Northern Europe. Speculum 68 (1993), 363–387.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry 35 (2008) 1, 1–32.

Kanerva, Kirsi. 2015. Having no Power to Return? Suicide and Posthumous Restlessness in Medieval Iceland. Thanatos  4 (2015) 1, 57–79.

The Saga of the Volsungs. The Saga of Ragnar Lodbrok, together with the Lay of Kraka. Transl. Margaret Schlauch. Scandinavian Classics 35. New York & London: The American-Scandinavian Foundation; George Allen & Unwin.

Völsunga saga ok Ragnars saga Loðbrókar. Udgivet for Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur ved Magnus Olsen. S. L. Møllers Bogtrykkeri: København 1906–1908.

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[1] Hefi ek þar til unnit alla luti, at Siggeir konungr skylldi bana fá. Hefi ek ok sva mikit til unit, at fram kęmizt hefndinn, at mer er med aungum kosti lift. Skal ek nu deugia med Siggeiri konungi lostig, er ek atta hann naudig. Völsunga saga, 19. Trans. Margaret Schlauch, p. 66 .

[2] At this point I will not discuss further the case of different genres of literature, however, although their source value needs to be considered in greater depth.

Heroic death? The case of seppuku

In my previous post I discussed an issue I am dealing with in my study of the history of medieval Scandinavian suicide at the moment, namely the causes of suicide in different cultural and historical contexts, and how melancholy, depression and mental disorders are often seen as presumable causes of suicide. However, in the history of humankind suicides have been committed for various reasons. Lately I have been acquainting myself with earlier research on suicide that would not have been motivated by emotional disturbances and mental illness, to find comparative material that may offer some thoughts and inspiration concerning my analysis of the medieval Icelandic material.

One example that often comes to mind is the Japanese seppuku, also sometimes erroneously called hara-kiri in western contexts from the nineteenth century onwards (although the word merely vulgarly refers to the method, i.e. “belly-slitting”). In his discussion of seppuku, Toyomasa Fusé has criticized the western way of understanding and explaining suicide for its psycho-pathological perspective, which prefers to regard suicide as a kind of emotional disorder and mental illness although, as other earlier studies suggest, they are not the only reason for self-inflicted death (See e.g. Durkheim 1952 [1897]; Fusé 1980, 63; Hacking 2008, 3; and the sources mentioned in my previous post). Toyomasa Fusé shows that in the Japanese culture, seppuku has been a rational choice. It has been linked to one’s conceptions of honor and one’s role in hierarchical organizations such as the traditional military aristocracy in Japan, better known as the Samurai. Seppuku has been a “socially and culturally prescribed” form of role-behavior, a legitimate way to end one’s life in certain circumstances, such as out of loyalty towards one’s superior, for the benefit of one’s social group or further generations, as a protest towards superiors to rectify injustice, or to prove one’s innocence when being unjustly accused. It has been considered a virtuous and acceptable act, a socially admissible way to preserve and protect one’s honor, for instance, if one was faced with the possibility of being caught by enemies and being killed by them, which would have been considered a great shame. Seppuku could be committed either voluntarily or under forced conditions, in which case the seppuku was called tsumebara, ”forced seppuku”. In addition, for the Samurai, to commit seppuku was an honor and a sign of great courage (not surprisingly, since the method has apparently been painful), and the act has been admired. (For more information on the various forms of seppuku, see Fusé 1980, 57–61, 63)

According to the sources, the history of seppuku may reach as far back as the 8th-century feudal Japan. Seppuku has not remained immutable over time,  however. During the Tokugawa period (1603–1868, also called the Edo period) it became an institutionalized, ritualized and standardized form of suicide. It also became a form of punishment: the Samurai were usually not punished by death, but they had the “privilege” of committing seppuku instead of being killed by someone else, a sentence referred to as a “conferred death”. (Fusé 1980, 58–59)

Fusé (1980, 61) has inspected seppuku in light of the Durkheimian theory of suicide and considered seppuku an altruistic suicide, or in his words, ”a supreme act of responsibility and of belonging”. The one who committed seppuku was devoted to his social role and sacrificed his own life for the sake of it. Carelessness or errors made could cause shame and affected both the role and status of the individual, thus creating a situation where the life of the Samurai was not worth living anymore. Toyomasa Fusé connects the ideology behind seppuku to Buddhism. The death was seen as the meaning of the Samurai’s life, and a deliberate seppuku was the consequence of a rational decision-making. Moreover, compared to the old and the infirm who we thought to be helpless and die a passive death, the one who committed seppuku was an active agent who by himself made a decision over his own life. (Fúsé 1980, 61–63)

The seppuku example appears to support an assumption brought forth elsewhere: that in some cultural and historical contexts, under some circumstances, suicide has been considered a noble and heroic manner of death. (See also Hacking 2008, 4, where he discusses David Hume’s essay “Of Suicide” and his view of the suicides of e.g. Cato the Younger and Brutus who, according to Hume, deserved to be praised for their deeds).

Toyomasa Fusé’s study contributes to the cross-cultural theories of suicide (Fusé 1980, 63). I will return to his thoughts and their influence on the western theories of suicide later on as I make progress in my own research and start to sketch a medieval Icelandic “theory of suicide”, that is views of why individuals became suicidal – as far as a coherent, unambiguous theory would have existed in the minds of medieval people, which is unlikely, since the period under scrutiny here, ca. 1100–1400, was characterized by various cultural, religious, legal and political changes, which also affected people’s norms concerning, attitudes towards and views of suicide.

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How to cite this page: Kanerva, Kirsi. “Heroic death? The case of seppuku.” Suicide in Medieval Scandinavia: A research project, 27 April, 2017. < https://historyofmedievalsuicide.wordpress.com/2017/04/27/heroic-death-the-case-of-seppuku/  >

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Works cited

Durkheim, Émile. 1952 [1897]. Suicide: A Study in Sociology. [Trans. John A. Spaulding & George Simpson] London: Routledge & Kegan.

Fusé, Toyomasa. 1980. Suicide and Culture in Japan: A Study of Seppuku as an Institutionalized Form of Suicide. Social Psychiatry 15 (1980), 57–63.

Hacking, Ian. 2008. The Suicide Weapon. Critical Inquiry. 35 (2008) 1: 1–32.